Monday, March 14, 2016

An open letter to an atheist friend

Note: This is sort of an a-typical post. Hope you enjoy it anyway.

First, you have to know that I have a sense that there is a deep, ebullient laugh at the heart of existence, a joyous, radiant love that overcomes all hatred and anger and failure. God, as I understand Him, might weep a while with and for us and then smile, knowing that there is a power sufficient to overcome every hurt, a grace so luminous and abiding that it will ultimately banish darkness and despair forever. The scriptures offer a depiction of God as a Father so loving that no rebellion will not be forgiven and forgotten in the expansive embrace of forgiveness and generosity. There is the story of the prodigal son, who wishes his father dead, takes his inheritance and wastes his existence. When he returns home miserable and hungry, the father sees him afar off and runs to him, weeping and embracing and then offers him a ring, a robe, a fatted calf, and a place in his home (see Luke 15:11-24). That seems like a fitting depiction of God. Or there is the story of David and Absalom. David forgives his son for murdering his brother (after a woman has told David that God devises means to bring home His banished—actively looks for any excuse to forgive and restore, see 2 Samuel 14:14). After the forgiveness, Absalom raises an army to depose, dethrone, and destroy his father. When Absalom dies, David mourns passionately (see 2 Samuel 18:33). Again, this seems to be a reflection of true fatherhood, which is embodied in God the Father. All this is to say that for all you fight against God and mock and belittle, I sense that He will always love you. And I imagine He is not worried too much about—nor threatened at all by—your vitriol and froth.

Have you ever heard of Pascal’s wager? Blaise Pascal was a French physicist and mathematician in the 17th Century. He became a convert to Christianity when his rationalistic worldview became inadequate to his experiences. He was a great philosopher and thinker. His wager is essentially this: There are two possibilities with regard to God—either He exists or He does not. And there are two ways to live this life—as if there is a God, or as if there is not. Because faith depends on the possibility of God’s absence, there will not be sufficient evidence to effectively prove one possibility or the other, either God’s existence or His non-existence. So we get to choose how to live life in that space of unknowing. Pascal says essentially that if he were a betting man, he would live as if God exists because if God does exist and you live as if He does, you get the peace, joy, hope, and comfort living with God in the world offers (I’ll show you some scientific research on this later) AND you get the eternal happiness that comes from having developed a relationship with God. But if you live as if God does not exist and it turns out that He does, you not only miss out on the radiant life that God offers in mortality, you also miss out on an eternity of blessedness. If it turns out God does not exist, just eliminate the second half of each of those sentences.

I recently came across this poem that captures some of my feelings on the matter. It’s by an LDS poet named James Goldberg, and it’s called “Let me drown with Moses”:

If these walls of water fall, O Lord,
let me drown with Moses.

And let me praise you with my final breath
for lending me his mad, prophetic dream
for letting me wander out past the edge of this world
beside a man who could see all the glory of Egypt
and still say it wasn’t enough.

If these walls of water fall, O Lord,
let me drown with Moses.
Yes, let me die with the same fire in my eyes
Moses saw in a desert bush.

The essence of the poem is that even if following a prophet into the middle of the Red Sea ends in death, it was a thrill and a privilege to be a part of the great bright adventure of belief in a new world, in other possibilities. The prophet offers a new and glistening way to view existence, a reality riddled with hidden joys and miraculous light. I feel the same sense of gratitude and wonder. Did you ever read the novel or watch the film Life of Pi? It’s a wrestle with God, an attempt to find meaning in life. There are two possibilities: Either Pi has an outrageous, unlikely experience with a tiger on a boat, or he does not. And the novel asks the question, “Which story do you prefer?” Ultimately, it’s a story about believing in improbable and beautiful things. I prefer the story with the tiger, honestly, to a limited, lightless view of a reality constrained to what I can explain in words. With Pascal, I’ll put my wager on God, and hold on for the ride.

Atheism, like theism, is unprovable and unproven. Atheism is a solid faith in the absence of God. Rationally-speaking, it is not superior to faith in God. Science has absolutely nothing to say about the absence or the existence of God. And your claim that “94% of all the scientists in the U.S. are atheists” is simply not true. According to the most recent Pew survey on this, more than half of American scientists believe in God or a higher power, and 95% of all Americans so believe ( But God’s existence has never been contingent on people’s belief, so this is no solid argument either way.

Most of the “scientific” certainty that would seem to deny the existence of God might more appropriately be called parascience or pseudoscience. The scientific method cannot prove a negative. Science will never show that anything does not exist. That is not scientific. Occam’s Razor is a heuristic, a logical shortcut, and not an irrefutable principle of logic. And to follow it unquestioningly would preclude much of contemporary scientific discovery which flies in the face of rationalism and reductionism. Dark energy, dark matter, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, quantum strangeness—all affirm that our historical view of reality is insufficient to describe the complexity and mystery of existence. Authentic contemporary science is a humble, awed endeavor.

What scientific research has shown pretty consistently is that religious people are generally happier than irreligious people. ( UC Berkeley has a center devoted to the science of happiness, and the teachings of Christianity pretty much sum up how to live a joyous life, scientifically-speaking ( Also check out

As for the scriptural anomalies you mention as evidence of the moral superiority of atheism over religion, they are simply that—anomalies. Religion has always spoken to humans in their real-time situations and in their inadequate language. D&C 1:24 says, “these commandments . . . were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” Most biblical scholars see each of the instances you note (death penalty for rebellious children, slavery in Hebrew culture, women preaching in synagogue, etc.) as cultural in origin an unenforced in practice. To take four verses of scripture which appear to your limited perspective from your limited worldview to show the moral bankruptcy of biblical religion is not only ridiculous, it is unscientific and irresponsible. Science would gather all the data, and weigh the instances of apparent immorality against the overwhelming burden of scripture which affirms the holiness of every human being and the importance of treating each person you encounter as if they were the incarnation of God. To claim that the atrocities committed in the name of religion disprove the power, majesty, and beauty of religion is akin to claiming that since Kim Jong-Il, Jeffrey Dahmer, Jim Jones, Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Stalin were atheists, all atheists are murderers, psychopaths, usurpers, and dictators. You rightly argue that religion is not essential for ethics, but to call it unethical is to ignore its claims.

To classify religious experience as delusional and unfounded in reality is to ignore the fact that our minds and our experience are all we have with which to comprehend reality in the first place. Who can argue against experience? The problem with atheism is that it asserts that because the atheist has not recognizably experienced God, therefore no one else could possibly have any authentic experience with the divine. It is an arrogant, unethical, and logically-untenable position.

To arrogantly claim that all religious people are unintelligent and therefore not deserving of your respect is, first, unethical because lots of unintelligent people are deserving not only of your respect, but of your honor and your love (see John 14:34-35). Secondly, it is to ignore the evidence. Since most of the world’s inhabitants have been religious in one way or another, most of the great thinkers have believed in God. If you want some contemporary examples of brilliant theists, go pick up My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman or any book by Marilynne Robinson (who, by the way, has some great insights into the “hysterical scientism” of new atheists like Richard Dawkins:

You cannot prove the absence of God. I cannot prove His existence. But my experience leads me to value the radiant reality belief in God opens up for me. For me, belief transfigures existence, giving it a luminosity and a meaning that charge every moment with transcendent possibility. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to verbalize some of my thoughts. Blessings.


  1. Thank you for this thoughtful, fruitful, and faithful post! This is a great example of Elder Bednar's charge to #ShareGoodness

  2. I needed a taste of light this morning, thank you. Actually this is more like a feast of light. So good, my friend, so very good.